May 18, 2011


If Austin dining is to become fully enclosed in a fresh pine box of hipster gastronomy and mixology, then Haddington's is a fine, final nail in the lid. The wood in question is sourced and milled in the Pacific Northwest – Portland, to be specific – where mustachioed, vintage-clad young men are spawned from the cold Willamette like salmon, fitted with sleeve tattoos and shoved unceremoniously into a farmer's market to develop MacGyver-like gustatory ingenuity or perish into heroin-addled dissipation. Here, take this pork belly, broccolini and six pounds of mustard seed and MAKE MAGIC.

Being seated at Haddington's was like an instant jaunt up to PDX. Give credit to the city – they've spawned a generation of inked-up cocktail engineers, eager to concoct absurdities like animal fat-infused rye whiskey, not to mention what appears to be an entire subculture of interchangeable service employees who singlehandedly keep the fixed-gear cycling industry in business. As much as I'd like to claim that Austin is purely original culture, it's hard to see the hipster restaurant craze as anything more than a full-scale migration from Portland.

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April 09, 2009


Moving the site over to Wordpress and back shortly with more reviews. Stay tuned....

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September 29, 2008

Flying Saucer, 4600 Guadalupe (in the Triangle)

The titular spacecraft, er, pub franchise landed early in the Triangle, advertising "please don't call us a chain" funkiness, zaftig barmaids in skimpy schoolgirl attire, and a card-swiping club that encourages premature liver damage through excessive alcohol consumption, rewarded with prizes of dubious value. In other words, my kind of place. You know the rest: Dark wood, fall-in deep chairs, boisterous patio clouded with smoke, flat screen televisions, trivia night, the sonorous lull of overserved retching in the men's room – it's a beer bar, by god, and it's nearly within stumbling distance of home. Time to get my name on a plaque.

Burgers, brats and (exceptionally good) pretzels complement the extensive beer selection, but the menu has aspirations beyond simple pub grub. Beer and cheese pairings round out a small selection of charcuterie including smoked salmon and sopressata, all of which come in generous portions in any combination you wish. There are salads (yes, salads) and the omnipresent wraps. Pizza, sandwiches, nachos and a bewildering variety of fried and sometimes drenched potatoes provide the remainder of the alcohol-absorption duties. Sorry, no fish and chips.

I admire any kitchen that is willing to decorate a plate of cheese-drenched nachos with sausage – I mean, why the hell not? The Beer Brat Nachos are a perfect over-the-top accompaniment to a 12% Belgian abbey ale and a couple of shots of Irish whiskey after you've just gotten the bad news from your broker. Caramelized onions are a welcome – but oddly panty-waisted – addition to a dish that needs no further accoutrement. Toss the aioli over your shoulder at the 12-top of giggling Chi-Omegas and just pour the rest of your buddy's Guinness on the damn plate. That's about the only thing that could improve it.

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July 31, 2008

Galaxy Cafe, 4600 Guadalupe (in the Triangle)

I've finished eating my way through the Triangle, so it's time to pass judgement on the rest of the establishments there (see a review of Sago here). I'll save the annoying Which Wich? for a forthcoming sandwich roundup, and the jury remains out on the affable but inconsistent Mandola's. If you've been itching for outer-space themed dining and drinking experiences, look no further than the eerie minimalism of a new Galaxy Cafe, docked next to the malt-soaked prurience of the Flying Saucer. A better exercise in contrast could not have been imagined by either proprietor. Let's tackle the lighter side first.

For those pining for a dining experience designed by Stanley Kubrick, the ascetic white and orange minimalism of the new Galaxy Cafe will leave you wondering where, exactly, the HAL 9000 is located. Soaring ceilings, Gilliam-esque duct-shaped light fixtures, stark Ikea chairs and an Orwellian flat screen presentation of a mesmerizing, animated logo (and nothing more) bring to mind the lighter side of fascist architecture. Indeed, as you are channeled via a low, colored ceiling back toward the strangely dark ordering counter, one has the impression of entering an exquisitely designed abattoir.

Thankfully, Anton Chigurh is not manning the register here, although the sound of compressed air might send me running for the door. Galaxy is an order-at-the-counter, "fast-casual" joint like sister establishment Zocalo, and if the food wasn't worth a damn at either one of these places, the sheer force of image management and clever grace notes would be oppressive. Galaxy Cafe is sort of an anti-matter version of Applebee's – just as calculated, but engineered for a hip, health and design-conscious audience.

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March 26, 2008

Sago Modern Mexican, 4600 Guadalupe (in the Triangle)

Imagine my surprise — ambling through the shining testament to urban infill called The Triangle, I caught sight of a large vinyl sign screaming "MODERN MEXICAN" and assumed, for a brief moment, that this was some Westlake doyenne's unfortunate name for the Latin-flavored clothing shop she just opened. Before I could clear the visions of racks of bejeweled gaucho pants out of my head, I spotted tables and chairs and clean, attractive young women holding shiny folded printed things and realized that I was looking at a restaurant. A "MODERN MEXICAN" restaurant. Thank god. More food to try.

I've railed against arbitrary and useless qualifiers of "Mexican" before, but "modern" certainly sounds appealing—though it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Indoor plumbing and some kind of attention to hygiene rank high on my list of requirements for modernity, but this could just as easily refer to some new interpretation of cuisine, or perhaps a Joycean riff on the menu descriptions: "The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea. And from the sea, pescado a la veracruzano!"

No such luck. In the case of Sago Modern Mexican, "modern" apparently entails the brazen juxtaposition of bright paint schemes with a mirror-tiled disco wall and some inoffensive light techno in the background. Or maybe it's the traditional tin ornaments contrasted cleverly against the miniature Ikea cactus pots on the tables. Whatever. We get it — this is not Amaya's Taco Village. Or, as my attorney put it, "this place looks like a stash house in Juarez."

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March 20, 2008

Din Ho Chinese BBQ, 8557 Research Blvd

North Austin strip-center goodness never ends — it seems you can walk into nearly any joint crammed between a discount furniture shop and an ethnic grocery and find a linoleum-floored, wood paneled gem serving up something hearty and authentic. The jumble of shops next to the Target on 183 has given us the exemplary Vietnamese of Sunflower and one of my latest favorites, Din Ho.

If you've never had the pleasure of entering a restaurant with glistening ducks and pigs hanging in the front window (it's common in Asia), you'll enjoy seeing the specialties of the house prior to their surrender to the cleaver. I recommend dragging a couple of vegan friends along for comic relief, though they may not dine out with you again. That's too bad, because Din Ho does a better job with veggies than most Chinese joints. If you've had your fill of greens drenched in grease and hoison sauce, order up a plate of Din Ho's snow pea leaves with garlic - they're simple and very nearly "light," and your stomach will thank you for the roughage once the onslaught of oink and quack begins.

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January 10, 2008

Fino, 2905 San Gabriel

I wasn’t sure what to expect when Emmett and Lisa Fox opened Fino. Their venerable Hyde Park trattoria Asti had, over the years, balanced its cozy charm and creativity with inconsistent execution and some downright bombs. For every revelatory seasonal soup there seemed to be a mess like the last house-made papardelle I had there, which came out thick and gummy enough that it might as well have emerged from a Wrigley’s wrapper.

But Italian is hard (and even harder to write about, what with the Tuscany-summering, message board-patrolling authenticity police lecturing random sandwich eaters on the correct singular construction of panino), and the spectrum of Italian restaurant quality is a bell curve with a gut full of mediocrity. The gulf between merely edible and good is tremendous, and while Asti was closer to good, it couldn’t make it there every night.

Fino shares little of the dark intimacy of Asti; instead, a bright, modern space was crafted in the shell of the late (and not particularly lamented) Granite Café. A large community table gleams just behind the bar and the inevitably young, attractive hostess, but there is plenty of standard seating both inside and outside, and a surprisingly inviting patio waiting area that may be one of the best spots in town to enjoy a quiet cocktail. Occupying a nether region that is neither downtown nor campus nor north Austin, Fino is mercifully bereft of the open-shirt, pointy-shoe crowds of wealthy young jerkwads urbanites that overrun most of the decent restaurants downtown and just south of the river.

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November 06, 2007

Zocalo Cafe Taqueria Fresca, 1110 West Lynn

"Fresh Mex" is a euphemism in dire need of an involuntary retirement party. Like "pro-life," it is a thinly-veiled condemnation of the other side of the argument and, like all political language, has little real meaning on its own. Who isn't for life? Who doesn't want fresh food? When the "Fresh" label is applied to Mexican food, it is a purely political statement, translated by our fear-addled food brain into "less grease and a couple more salads." It's freighted with potential dread, not unlike a Guiliani stump speech.

So, I come at the opening of Zocalo, which advertises its freshness in a tagline-logo package that appears predestined for highly profitable franchise opportunities, with an admittedly jaundiced eye. After all, I see nothing un-fresh in the greasy al pastor of a good taco wagon or in a lard-infused molé. Neither is light, but both are as fresh as any pineapple salad. Then again, I am both pro-death and pro-lard, so there you go. Death by lard for me, and I am going to enjoy every goddamn minute of it.

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October 17, 2007

La Victoria Bakery, 5245 Burnet Rd.

I'm starting to like Burnet Road as a peculiarly Austin-style culinary destination. It lacks the pretense and arch-hip attitude of South Congress, and is apparently still cheap enough to support tiny family restaurants like Consuelo's and one of the best breakfast taco joints in town, La Victoria bakery. La Victoria (neé Mi Victoria — I guess changing the signage was cheap) pumps out a bewildering array of traditional Mexican pastries (mostly panes dulces) and other sweet Mexican treats like gelatina and flan, but the star attraction here is the taco.

A good breakfast taco needs to satisfy three basic requirements. First, it needs to be cheap — otherwise you might as well sit down and order a plate of food. Second, it needs to be filling, so you can make it through your hellish morning without opening fire on your co-workers. Finally, of course, it needs to taste good — and, given the slightly monochromatic porkiness/saltiness of most breakfast ingredients, that means good salsa.

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October 01, 2007

La Cocina de Consuelo, 4516 Burnet

This cozy eatery opened by local catering luminary Connie Rodriguez brings hole-in-the-wall ambiance to tony Rosedale, on a strip of Burnet that is undergoing a culinary renaissance of sorts. While Blue Star missed the mark (just slightly) the last time for me, Maru is turning out decent sushi and Sampaio's menu, though bank-breaking, has some genuine treats.

I keep going back to Connie's for the breakfast burritos - really, somewhere between a burrito and a taco, if you subscribe to the Mission-size criteria for true burrito-dom. "Stacy's" burrito packs egg, machacado and avocado into a homemade flour tortilla and makes a solid breakfast for under three bucks - in some ways, it's a better deal than two breakfast tacos, and a welcome break from the holy grease/cheese/egg trinity of Texas mornings.

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June 18, 2007

Three Forks, 111 Lavaca

If you awoke at five this morning in a feverish sweat wondering why there weren't enough goddamn high-dollar steakhouses in downtown Austin, you can eat another handful of Tums and go back to sleep. From now on, when you can't squeeze your party into Sullivan's, Ruth's Chris, Fleming's, Eddie V's or Lambert's, you can call the only meat joint in a ten-block area not sporting a possessive proper name and indulge in opulent oil-baron decadence at Three Forks.

Whether or not Austin needs another purveyor of bank-breaking prime beef and over-oaked cabernets is really beside the point; Three Forks appears by all accounts to have been implanted into the earth directly from outer space (outer space being Dallas) and its pitch-perfect, humidor-like dimness gives one the distinct sense that a complex network of tunnels supplies the establishment with cattle and kitchen help that rarely see the light of day. Were it not for the lamentable intrusion of plasma televisions, a shadowy booth here would be the perfect place not just to plan but to execute your next murder.

On the topic of murder, Three Forks has its knives out for your expense account, so expect the same kind of tab you'd run up at any of the aforementioned joints, with another 10-15 percent thrown in for the Forks' particularly intense brand of service. In fact, any harm you could do an estranged business partner would be cleaned up so quickly and discreetly by the staff that a few well-greased palms might make this the perfect place to dispose of your latest problem.

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